Six springs ago, when a suicide bomber infiltrated a Passover seder in Netanya, the repercussions of the second intifada finally reached American Jewry. What the lynching in Ramallah and the Dolphinarium attack and scores of other terrorist acts had not accomplished, the devastated, desecrated seder did.
It closed the psychic gulf between Jews in the United States and Israel. It put people in the streets. Virtually any Jew in America, however unobservant of Judaism, however estranged from Zionism, could easily imagine himself or herself at the Passover table. Murder of that kind felt personal.
In the aftermath of Netanya, a genuine groundswell of identification with Israel emerged among American Jews, a sense of outrage and affinity that extended beyond the reliable precincts of Modern Orthodoxy and professional advocacy groups.
Admittedly, there is something unsettling, even depressing about the need for the mass slaughter of Israeli innocents to stir and mobilize the mainstream of American Jews. But after the past few weeks, experiencing the strange passivity of that mainstream, I find it reasonable to wonder what kind of atrocity will be required now.
In recent weeks, a Palestinian gunman has slain teenaged students in the library of arguably the most famous yeshiva in Israel, and rockets have fallen repeatedly on Sederot and Ashkelon. As if the point should even need to be underscored, all these attacks occurred within the borders of sovereign, pre-1967 Israel, nothing occupied or disputed about it — except, of course, to existential enemies
Yet the expressions of rage and solidarity from American Jewry have arisen only from the usual committed quarters. Did the bloodshed at Mercaz Harav somehow matter less because the target was a yeshiva? Did it matter less because that yeshiva is closely tied to the settler movement? Why has it seemed so difficult for American Jews to make the vicarious connection to those young victims?
The missile assaults in southern Israel raise a different set of questions about an American Jewish response.
Seeing the rising public tolerance for crime and social chaos in the 1970s, the late public intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously coined the phrase "defining deviancy down." Has Hamas now accomplished something similar? Has it made the aerial bombardment of Israeli civilians ordinary, normative, no particular reason for a second thought, at least from the safety of Scarsdale, N.Y., or Encino, Calif.? Has it made warfare into mere background noise?
For all the vaunted clout of the "Israel Lobby," the conspiratorial power it supposedly wields, the relative silence among much American Jewry belies the stereotype. The lobby can effectively apply pressure upward to elected officials, presidential candidates, policymakers. What it cannot do is motivate those below, the rank-and-file of the American Jews.
To move the mass requires what a political consultant of my acquaintance refers to as the "emotional trigger." The seder in Netanya supplied the last one, and even so, it hit American Jews belatedly, 18 months into the intifada. The Hezbollah bombing of Haifa during the 2006 Lebanon war didn't create a similar emotional moment for American Jews, and now neither has the Sederot, Ashkelon and Mercaz Harav.
You can try to rationalize the dispassion. For the many Jews who supported unilateral disengagement from Gaza (me included), every missile landing in Sederot or Ashkelon rebukes us for our naivete.
Only a few weeks from now, this year's round of Israel Day parades will step off, marking the 60th anniversary. Incredibly, a state in middle age is still struggling to control its border and protect its civilians. Yet you can be sure the marchers will be the regulars: the day-school contingents, the graying ranks of secular Zionists.
For the rest, I can only shudder to think what kind of carnage will be required for the next wake-up call.
Samuel G. Freedman is a New York City-based columnist.